RogerBW's Blog

Mere Ethics 18 January 2021

There is obvious a certain Schadenfreude to be had in observing the flailings of the people who got caught during and after the failed coup in the USA. But I think one should go beyond that.

I disagree with C. S. Lewis about most things – indeed, about the validity of the concept of trying to reason someone into a belief which by definition is not reasonable – but when he doesn't rely on God to back him up and just talks about ethics he has some decent points. Here's a bit from chapter 7 of Mere Christianity that I've been thinking about a lot lately:

The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally, we shall insist on seeing everything—God and our friends and ourselves included—as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.

You don't need to abdicate all your moral choices to God for that to make sense. "That guy died because he tased himself in the balls, har har." (No he didn't.) "That woman didn't understand why the police objected to what she was doing, har har." Yeah, funny enough, but the more you think of the opposition as idiots and evil the more you reinforce the idea that they are Them and Other and not really worthy of consideration as human beings, rather than people who think that they are good people (as almost everyone does) who've been brainwashed into acting repeatedly against their own interests as well as ours. Don't go after them. Go after the brainwashers! Yes, I fear the mob, but I also pity the people whipped up to make it.

(Even I quite liked the Vice headline "The Guy Who Flew a Confederate Flag in the Capitol Has Predictably Surrendered".)

When I was growing up the general attitude I was taught was that the Nazis were a one-off phenomenon, that there was some particular and special combination of economic and cultural forces with a specific leader who made them possible, and normal people could never do that. I have been arguing for twenty years and more that this is not the case, that anyone can be turned evil if you just get them into it step by step, for reasons that seem good to them at the time. (Just like compromising an intelligence source: first you get them to do you a small favour, not even illegal, just a short-cut to help things work more smoothly…) I don't have to make that point as often as I did five years ago; other people have finally noticed.

No sane person thinks of themselves as bad. Treat them as bad people and you will never communicate with them meaningfully. In the modern era they already have a constant drip of reminders that anyone who disagrees with them is The Enemy: don't play into it.

These terrorists thought of themselves as good people. They thought that they were part of a wide popular movement, most of which just doesn't dare to speak out openly yet. And that is why they were so surprised that (most of) the police were opposed to them: I am a good person, the police are good people, therefore the police must basically agree that what I am doing is a good thing.

(As a filthy anarchist I am well aware that the principal job of the police is to protect capital.)

The main way American Evangelicals lose members, other than death, is because of their anti-gay, anti-non-white, anti-non-subservient-female message: as soon as the kids get out of their bubble, whether on the Internet or in real life, they meet non-hetero and non-white and non-subservient-female people, and those people are (mostly) not the predatory devils they have been taught to expect. "You say gay people are all like that, but my friend Jason isn't." And because the whole worldview is treated as monolithic, doctrine passed down from on high, when you crack that you crack the rest too.

(I say American Evangelicals because I regard that as its own sect now; I know several British Christians who'd describe themselves as Evangelical, and they're distinctly embarrassed by what their soi-disant co-religionists are up to. Any cult in the USA can quickly discover that it has much less trouble if it calls itself "Christian".)

That of course is why they're called on to witness constantly: it reduces the probability of having an actual conversation with someone, and reinforces the idea that outside people are scary and unfriendly, so it's much better to stick with your friends inside the group. They may expect to "make converts", but their leaders know better.

So again, if you want to kick the bosses of the American Evangelicals where it hurts (and let's face it I'm a role-player; I would have ignored them if they hadn't come after my games), don't follow their standard track by insulting the guy who wants to talk about God; if you don't have time, just smile and move on. If you do, remember that they've been given standard responses to parrot to the usual objections, but they aren't trained to think for themselves, so if you can find a thing that they haven't been trained for you can often crack them wide open in just a few minutes of conversation. (At least this has been my experience, and I'm not a particularly skilled debater.) They may even turn out to be nice people once they're allowed to have a personality of their own again.

  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 10:21am on 18 January 2021

    Well said, it seems we do agree about some things.

  2. Posted by Nicola Zealey at 05:14pm on 19 January 2021

    Well said.

    As the old saying goes, “All the world is queer save thee and me, and even thou art a little queer.”

    Internet forums can so easily become polarized echo chambers. The way to guard against evil is understanding. We are ALL only humans and ALL only human. Hopefully Biden becoming President will encourage everyone to listen more and shout less.

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